The paintings of Vincent Van Gogh are some of the most iconic artworks of the Impressionist era. Even those of us without a background in art history will recognise his signature use of colour and heavy brushstokes in his most famous painting such as Sunflowers or The Starry Night.
Van Gogh is one of art history’s most recognisable figures, we hear so much about this ‘poor, troubled artist’ who cut off his ear, but it turns out most of the popular stories of his life and art are myths.
As part of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces, the NGV is presenting Van Gogh and the Seasons, the largest collection of Van Gogh artworks to ever travel to Australia. The exhibition invites viewers to contemplate Van Gogh’s life and experiences through his observations of the seasonal changes within the natural world. Drawing extensively from Van Gogh’s letters and from research into his deep interest in literature and nature, Van Gogh and the Seasons explores the infuences and themes that dominate much of this visionary artist’s work.
I was invited to the media preview last week to hear the exhibition curator, Sjraar van Heugten speak about the exhibition and Van Gogh’s career. He spoke about some of the artworks in the exhibition and also debunked a few myths about Van Gogh’s life.
MYTH 1 – Van Gogh was a poor, starving artist
It’s true that Van Gogh had moments in his life where he was poor, like when he was a preacher in Belgium, but it was a self chosen poverty, he wanted to be poor amongst the poor. But as soon as he became an artist, his brother Theo supported him financially until the very end, so as an artist Van Gogh was never poor.
MYTH 2 – Van Gogh was an unsuccessful artist
He only had a very short career of 10 years, with most of his best work only produced in the last couple of years of his life. It’s not so strange that he wasn’t recognised immediately, but he did become recognised by the end of his career. Fellow artists thought he was one of the major artists of the time.
MYTH 3 – Van Gogh was always a talented artist
Turns out Van Gogh never set out to be an artist, although he was always interested in art. His brother Theo was the one who encouraged him to pursue painting after he failed in his religious career of a Protestant preacher. His early work was by his own admission not very good. He starts to read and study art techniques from books and becomes more confident that, yes, he may have a career as an artist after all. It takes 7 years of developing his skills to become paint the ‘great masterpieces’ he is so well known for now.
I really liked how the exhibition was organised seasonally, and within each season, the work is displayed chronologically, which really gave me an insight into just how far Van Gogh’s talent and artistic vision developed over his career.
Most would be pressed to attribute some of his early work to him as the style was so different to what we all now recognise as a ‘Van Gogh’. I’d go as far as saying most of his early work, although competent, was not very good. But as beautiful as the pieces from his later period are, I actually found the early pieces fascinating because it goes to show that with enough hard work and dedication, great things can be achieved.
His early works were in a very traditional style with a really dark palette which just didn’t work, then he goes to Paris and discovers the possibilities of colour, which becomes a major turning point in his artistic style.
His brother Theo was truly the unsung hero in Vincent’s life, who supported him both emotionally and financially through his career.
The exhibition itself feels very intimate and almost maze like, the paintings are not very big so the display spaces have been designed to showcase each painting on it’s own wall. The only downside was that with many people going through it felt a little crowded in some areas. If you plan on going, I’d suggest a mid week viewing because I imagine the weekend crowds will feel overwhelming.
Van Gogh and the Seasons is on display at NGV International,
180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, Australia from 28 April – 9 July 2017 as part of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series.
Tickets on sale now from NGV.MELBOURNE
Adult $28 / Concession $24.50 / Child $10 / Family (2 adults, 3 children) $65